Luka Doncic gave the Clippers all they could handle in his first NBA playoff series.
Although he was hobbled by a sprained ankle for much of the first-round Western Conference matchup, and harassed by Marcus Morris Sr., and burdened further yet by the absence of Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavs’ second-leading scorer, Doncic averaged 31.0 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 8.7 assists over the six games against the Clippers.
“I was on board with Luka a long time ago,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of the 21-year-old Slovenian star, whose buzzer-beater in overtime a week earlier evened the series, 2-2. “Two years ago, his rookie year, I had a man crush on him. It’s grown.”
Doncic’s collection of historical accolades grew throughout the series, too, even as the Clippers used just about every tool in their box — blitzing, switching, trapping, doubling — to try to contain him.
He joined Oscar Robertson on a two-man list of players who’d accumulated 100-plus (126, to be exact) points, 40-plus (42) rebounds and 30-plus (39) assists in his first four playoff games.
And then there was his performance in the Mavs’ 135-133 overtime victory, when Doncic joined Wilt Chamberlain as one of only two players to notch 43-plus points, 17-plus rebounds and 13-plus assists in a game, in addition to becoming the youngest to hit a playoff buzzer-beater and the youngest with a 40-point triple-double — all on a bum left ankle.
“He’s one of the toughest players that I’ve ever seen in this league, and that goes back 35, 36 years,” Dallas’ veteran coach Rick Carlisle said via Zoom video conference. “He was Rookie of the Year last year, and this year he’s up for most improved … and I expect he’ll come back next year even better, with something new in his game, the same what that (Larry) Bird and Magic (Johnson) and (Michael) Jordan and all those great NBA players did every summer.”
Doc Rivers didn’t hold back when offering up his thoughts on his young center’s performance this series: “Zube had the playoff of his life.”
Well, yeah, countered Ivica Zubac.
“It’s not hard to have the playoffs of my life,” Zubac said. “Because I’ve been to the playoffs one time before, and it was not really good.”
Indeed, though he might like to forget it, Zubac’s first exposure to the postseason last season was painful — and motivating.
He played in only four of the Clippers’ six games against the Golden State Warriors, went scoreless in two of the contests he did appear and played more than 10 minutes only in the Clippers’ 132-105 loss.
The 7-foot Croatian center returned this season determined that he’d be harder to take off the floor this postseason — and he has been. Zubac averaged 11.2 points and 7.0 rebounds in 24.8 minutes per game in the series, and in Sunday’s clinching 111-97 victory, he posted 15 points and 11 rebounds and was plus-33 in the box score in 33 minutes of action.
“I really love the trust (Rivers is) putting in me,” Zubac said. “And every time I step out on the court, I wanna return the favor. I want to play good for the team. I want to do the stuff they’re asking me to do so I still get that trust from him. I love the team, love the coach, and happy to be in this spot.”
Patrick Beverley missed his fifth consecutive game with a strained left calf Sunday. Although the Clippers coped successfully without their emotional leader (improving to 14-12 on the season in games he doesn’t play), Doc Rivers said he’s eager to to reincorporate their defensively adept guard back into the rotation.
“He had a good practice (Saturday),” Rivers said. “We didn’t do a lot of live stuff and he didn’t do any live stuff, so he’s a lot closer, but he’s just not ready yet.”